The shadow of the Witchfinder General looms long over history. Matthew Hopkins presided over England’s worst witch hunt, dispatching
300 people to the gallows between 1644 and
1647. His influence could also be felt at the Salem trials over half a century later, with many of the Puritan settlers that turned on each other in Massachusetts coming from the same eastern counties in which Hopkins went about his bloody business. Even today the pop culture imagery of the witch – pointed hat, broomstick, black cat – has its roots in the mid-17th century. Hopkins’ personal legend also lives on, inspiring the 1968 Hammer Horror film Witchfinder General.
This is all the more impressive as Satanic panics were old in Britain by the time Hopkins came to power, more closely associated with Tudor times (Henry VIII passed England’s first law against witchcraft in 1547) and the later reign of the witch-obsessed James VI & I.
However, while Hopkins’ dark charisma must have been captivating, perhaps we shouldn’t point the finger of blame entirely in his direction. At the time Hopkins was operating, Britain was engulfed in a civil war, which had whipped up sectarianism and suspicion for him to tap into. Find out what really happened from page 30.
Discover how photography developed from page 14